FringeReview UK 2018
Marion Bott’s a French-German dramatist trained and resident in the UK, and writing in English with a three-handed international cast, one from Berlin. Tautly directed by Zois Pigadas, Moormaid features Sophia Simensky’s Scandi-stripped set resembling an interior of a balsawood and tissue aircraft with its fuselage a transparent passage behind the living room where the action takes place, lit with various eruptions of sound by Tim Boyd, the latter mainly blasting from iPhones and Pads.
It’s a work with enormous potential and worth seeing to realize how crackling and courageous this is. Forget the title which seems unfathomable to everyone, unless it’s a really icky pun. Marion Bott’s a French-German dramatist trained and resident in the UK, and writing in English with a three-handed international cast, one from Berlin. Moormaid’s if anything referring to Melissa, a thirty-three year old disillusioned painting professor in Berlin. Tautly directed by Zois Pigadas, it’s a work that’s palpably shifted textually and in last-minute decisions, all seemingly for the better.
At the start admonishing an umbrella, Sarah Alles’ Melissa stomps walnuts with a whisky bottle betraying a way with inanimate objects beyond action art. She screws up drawings with the gnomic ‘fuck you, Plato’. In fact she’s about to hang herself with her favourite red cashmere scarf when the telephone rings, which she hooks up by way of her toes to cheerily answer her recently-acquired husband, then gets on with the business of dying. There’s a knock. An ex pupil Mehdi (Moe Bar-El) who stood her up for dinner two years ago has had a dream she’s in danger.
And in two years AWOL he’s been up to much more. Not only that, he’s brought a ghost with him. He calls Melissa Miss Dawud, an intriguing non-Germanic name though we know she’s now married.
Welcome to Moormaid’s world then. Sophia Simensky’s Scandi-stripped set looks like an interior of a balsawood and tissue aircraft with its fuselage a transparent passage behind the living room where the action takes place, lit with various eruptions of sound by Tim Boyd, the latter mainly blasting from iPhones and Pads. It’s a world in shimmer, where the temporal and provisionally eternal briefly mix. The transparent passage allows the (paradoxical) physicality of ghosts to glower through, a world evanescent to the would-be disappearing Melissa and the already-disappeared but stuck Khan (Ali Azhar). Much of their initial banter is lad-bantz and sexual conquest – a word Bott doesn’t flinch from. But there’s anguish too and much praying.
Both these young men were favourite pupils of Melissa, Khan perhaps even more, but it’s Mehdi she misses. Quite why Mehdi’s fleeing to Melissa sparks questions of regret, renunciation and redemption of his recent past, something which initially Khan’s forestalls. Difficult, since Melisa can’t see him. It’s a bit Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) at points – the quirky humour of the umbrella and failed suicide erupts at stranger moments, as Bott peppers her dark-thewed purposes with a spice of mordant British sit-com. There’s much discussion of her obsession, androgyny, which Mehdi shrewdly interprets for her in one of her pupils sub-Blau Reiter pictures – child-like paintings resembling her own drawings which she earlier shredded.
First the dynamic between Alles and Bar-El is tingling. Alles is palpably far younger than thirty-three though supremely fitted to the balletic actions required, and Bar-El who references Al Pacino brings both danger and vulnerability to Mehdi. His physicality thrills both Melissa and the whole production. After various stand-offs and refusals the inevitable sex scene is beautifully airborne, where Pigadas excels, lifting the play through the physicality and rippling eroticism of a couple rolling and spiralling, literally enacting the androgyny Melissa’s bent on referencing, bringing down as an avatar. They become what she’s painting, and know it. Similarly Pigadas’ beautifully-choreographed movement of the two painting in tandem invisibly explains the play beyond the need of language.
Discarding theories of self with their clothes, what remains isn’t all psychobabble. Melissa’s not painted anything since he left. Mehdi escaped because he felt he wasn’t strong enough for her. ’That’s the illusion that builds the cage we lock ourselves into. We kill our truth to provide what’s expected (pause), All day long I hoped you would still be here.’ Well of course he is.
Naturally this kind of language if repeated doesn’t hold a British audience though a longer play would allow it integration. Various awkward moments in directions suggest a sympathetic editor could have ironed it out. Unusually, the text isn’t just elided (normal with subsequent rehearsals) but undergoes wholesale addition in one place and a rewritten final speech.
Abruptly after this Melissa discovers some speech of Mehdi’s online – the transition’s abrupt and not mapped at all. Again Pigadas guides the drama through the minefield of its original directions. The discovery’s originally through Khan’s agency; Bott feels ghosts can switch on i-Phones. Nevertheless it can’t disguise either the lack of backstory to either Mehdi’s or Khan’s sudden conversion, nor ultimately de-conversion from the paths taken. We’re meant to guess IS-style terrorism in Syria, an atrocity of Khan’s and its outfall. At one point too Mehdi is instructed by Khan to call Laura, Khan’s architect and life partner to dictate not only a ‘live’ greeting but a couple of bits of advice on town planning. It’s as concretely surreal as that. We’re certainly not led to believe this is in Mehdi’s head. Melisa looks on, non-plussed. Azhar’s liveliness and anger offsets Bar-El’s edgy withdrawals, panics and reconnected even redemptive self.
Ultimately Khan’s stuck in an in-between zone he needs Mehdi to release him from – ‘the red frame’. There are guys stuck from World War Two drifting about here in Berlin because no-one has, Khan adds to give as it were body to the ghost zone.
Bott asks serious questions. How can a terrorist redeem themselves, and how do individuals negotiate this? Can art play any part in rehabilitation, if the seed already embedded is allowed a permission through intimate reconnection wit the world? And of course sexual politics, guilt, complicity, state terrorism all loom. Bott allows Mehdi a lesser complicity in the terrors he’s witnessed. The audience might sympathise more than any literal-minded official, for obvious reasons.
No-one could ask for a harder-working nor empathic cast. To Bar-El and Azhar’s energy Alles brings a complementary poise, irony and humour that works more deeply than lads-bantz and her angst is delicately wrought with comedy up to the last moment. All three make their debuts and it’d be good to see them all again soon at a greater stretch.
Pigadas has curiously decided on an interval for an eighty-minute play, which doesn’t help it. Bott’s work needs to be longer though to tease out the densities she brings. It’s not so plot-twirled for a ninety-minute piece, but at eighty with an interruption it might prove an overload. If Pigadas has wisely eschewed the nude body-painting and horse’s head at the end, and generally worked with Bott for final last-minute textual felicities, it’s hoped Bott might integrate these and bring us back a longer-breathed work that releases the enormous potential here.